Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley: Big man with big faith who took big strides for peace

By Gail Walker

Put simply, without Dr Ian Paisley we would not have had the character of peace we now enjoy. It's easy to demonise people. Those involved in political analysis operate in the present, as we all do who get up, go to work and live. Our impressions of what happens come and go, with more or less consistency.

What we do rarely has any influence on the big forces that make things happen. Elections are a way for us to have a bearing on events, but mostly we hold our views and are lucky if anyone ever notices them. Ian Paisley was one of those few people whose life had a major influence on the course of events on this island.

To describe him as the sole determining factor in any particular sequence of events would be misleading and inaccurate. He was not solely responsible for the amazing treaty struck between Sinn Fein and the DUP in 2007 any more than he was solely responsible for intolerance, violence, tension and dissent.

Since his death there has been some unsavoury begrudgery from commentators and former political rivals, but there hasn't been much of a larger view taken. Such a view could be that the very clarity and force of Paisley's entire career prior to entering government with Sinn Fein were what made that move so potent. Without those, Paisley would have been no more persuasive an ally than any of the UUP leaders; he might even have long before fallen by the wayside like Ernest Baird or William Craig – a footnote to a unionism which had failed to deliver the endorsement of peace which Paisley was able to precisely because of the longevity of his resistance to change, the depth of relentless pursuit of integrity for the unionist view.

Such a view might also look at how Paisley brought his party from the margins of unionism to the centre of government and made it possible to stay there. At the way the half-dozen or so major players in the DUP came to prominence during his leadership – a posse of able ministers unmatched by any other party, even Sinn Fein. The supposed demagogue, it seems, nurtured the careers of all those household names. It might also recognise the role Paisley's vociferous dissent played in providing a hard line behind "moderate" UUP opinion which kept Protestants from aligning themselves with paramilitaries as a position of last resort. That fringe loyalism remains fringe is due to Paisley's visible capacity to soak up unionist paranoia.

His risk-taking in entering government with Sinn Fein and putting the credibility of his party and his own reputation at stake in the election was the deal-maker for peace. In so doing, Paisley took part in the conversation Carson ought to have had with Redmond, Craig and de Valera. Talks between the extremes. When Paisley and McGuinness spoke, these weren't mild proxies mimicking politics. These were the very historical forces which had vexed our politics for centuries. These were the very embodiments of our great cultural and political traditions, full-on, live, for real, in the here and now.

For the first time, between these two, honest, genuine words were spoken; hurts acknowledged; damage recognised; the best common principles of those two allegiances were articulated and shared. Compromise without humiliation, accommodation without bluff, aspiration without dilution.

Odd as it may seem, Paisley is of the scale of de Valera and Carson – as is McGuinness (even more than Adams); as is John Hume. Of course, there are nuances. But history will struggle to see easily around those figures. They all have to be understood on that scale.

I spent many hours with Paisley a decade ago interviewing him for this newspaper. We covered a vast stretch of ground all ploughed with complexities: his doctrinal issues with Catholicism spliced with heartfelt accounts of deeply personal moments with Catholics in crisis; the political fissures opening up – he scoffed at suggestions he was "being guarded by Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds because I could not be trusted". Then there was his charm: he was a romantic who advised husbands to buy their wives gifts. He'd started wearing snazzy suits which he got "from a chap called Bogart in town". He had a lot of time for Westerns, TV's Frost, porridge and "Wedgie Benn", his close pal at Westminster.

Many will remember Paisley with disgust, many with resentment, many with gratitude, many with affection. He was also a man much loved, by his family, by his many friends and by people whose lives he touched in different ways.

Many also will remember him – among them the key players of our society for 50-odd years, his fiercest enemies included – with respect.

It took a figure of the pedigree of Paisley to make the big decisions on behalf of his people, take the big steps necessary to save lives and to take the big personal and political risks those steps entailed. We should all be grateful in the long run that someone was sent with a big enough faith to take those steps.

A big man indeed.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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